Many employees told to return to the office for a hybrid schedule feel like guinea pigs in a science experiment. There’s no question they’re part of an experiment, and while executives often sing the praises of being back at the office, they rarely share the messier reality.
For the latest installment of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we spoke to a vice president of content at a global media and entertainment company, about what it’s really like going into the office two days a week. The company is based in Manhattan and this employee commutes to the office twice a week from suburbs north of the city.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Today is one of your two in-office days. What was your morning like?
My one-and-a-half-year-old son slept in until 6:30 a.m. today, so that was delightful. The nanny comes at 8 a.m. and my train to Grand Central is at 8:32 a.m. so it gives me just enough time to wash my face, put on clothing, pack my backpack and get out the door by 8:20 a.m. so that I can run down the hill and get on the train. I didn’t have time to shower.
My husband and I have an agreement where I do the mornings, he does the evenings post-nanny, so he’s typically sleeping when I’m getting ready with the baby. Our son gets really hyperactive after about an hour at home so I put him in one of those cars that I push while I take the dog for a 30-minute walk.
Wow, that’s a long walk in the morning when you’re rushing to get out the door.
It’s better than running after him trying to prevent him from destroying whatever. Yesterday he opened a packet of curry powder and spilled it all over him. Luckily I didn’t have to go into the office, because I smelled like curry for the rest of the day even though I did have time to shower.
When did your employer communicate that return-to-office was coming and how did they let everyone know?
There were different conditions and communications depending on your role. In my group, we were told late last year, and it was pushed back because of [the Omicron variant of Covid-19]. About two months in advance of when we were expected to be back in the office we were given a date of early March. All the communications told us to “talk to your manager” or “work with your manager.” The manager of your group was supposed to be in charge of your exact days and communicating logistics. The person in charge of my group’s transition didn’t understand it was his job to communicate to the team. So I actually heard which days we were expected to be in-office via the grapevine from other leaders within the company.
What is the sentiment on your team about returning to office?
They’re of the same mind that I am. We’re happy to be here. We miss the productivity, the creativity and the collaboration that we used to have. The challenge is that even being back in the office, it’s not like pre-pandemic because some people aren’t here. If they have someone at home who has a health condition, they’re not coming in. Or if they moved away or don’t live within commuting distance. Also, some groups that we collaborate with are not here the same days we are here.
We understand the rationale for coming back to the office. It makes sense in theory but in practice it’s incredibly inefficient. It’s frustrating because we’re the ones who are doing it and we’re surrounded by the visual reminder that it’s not being executed or enforced equally. Also, when I’m in the office I have to leave at 4:55 p.m. and I can’t get back on my computer until 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. Whereas if I’m home, I can work straight through till 6 p.m. The train doesn’t have Wi-Fi, so it’s hard to work.
What is it like managing your team through this process?
I’m supposed to toe the company line but it’s really the first instance where the company is doing something that I don’t fully understand. There hasn’t been any explanation of why they’re mandating it like this. So it’s very hard when I’m asked questions by my direct reports that I don’t have the answer to, but also are not supposed to reveal the fallacy of the situation.
It does bother me sometimes that I feel like I’m being stretched thinner than others. I have to do the commute, spend money on the commute, spend time away from my family and that’s not expected of other people at the company. That said, I understand the flip side. It’s hard to replace a good worker just because they’re remote. And sometimes being fully remote kind of sucks. It stinks being the only person on Zoom just as much as it stinks having to sit in a Zoom from the office. Neither side of that is a great side. Our company has done a pretty poor job of creating an environment where remote work is easy when you’re in the office. Inevitably the communication or the technology fails, the camera is down, or it’s not in focus, or you can’t dial out or the TV’s not working.
My direct manager is coming back next week after being on leave so I will transition to having a full-time remote boss, which is fine, because we have a great, long-standing relationship. But again, it’s just the nature of hybrid work. You’re supposed to show up, because getting face time with your boss is a better way to get ahead than not having face time with your boss. Everyone bought into that. I really thought [the last two years] is going to change the way we work. It hasn’t. It’s just made everything more difficult.